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Monday, December 3, 2012

Something New


We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“BLACK DAHLIA & WHITE ROSE” by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco–Random House, $NZ36:99)

            I suppose basic questions we ask when we read a new collection of short stories include – What do these stories have in common? What are the writer’s preoccupations? What is typical of the writer’s style?

            This might sound a little like textbook questions as asked in an undergrad English tutorial. But asking them does at least save us from the chaotic possibility that each story is an entity complete in itself. And – goodness me! – how could we ever be able to write clever book reviews if we didn’t impose some sort of framework upon the books we are reading?

            Anyway, Joyce Carol Oates’ latest collection of stories, Black Dahlia & White Rose, helps the reader out a little by dividing its eleven stories into four sections.

            The first section consists solely of the title story.

            “Black Dahlia & White Rose” is Oates’ reconstruction of the notorious “Black Dahlia” case in Los Angeles in 1947, when the aspiring film actress and “model” Elizabeth Short was kidnapped, tortured and murdered, by a person or persons unknown, before her corpse was mutilated spectacularly and dumped in a waste-ground. The case was never solved – hence, like the Jack the Ripper murders, its continuing fascination for people with ghoulish minds. There’s the additional frisson that this real-life case played out on the fringes of Hollywood, where desperate people would do any degrading thing to break into what they thought was a glamorous career in movies.

            Oates’ version has the story narrated from the grave by the murder victim; by the murder victim’s room-mate Norma Jeane Baker (before she became “Marilyn Monroe”); and by the sleazy photographer who took soft-porn photos of both of them, and contemplated blackmailing a man who could have been the murderer. Technically, the story is a very proficient and accomplished piece of work, for all its depressing theme. It cuts between three quite distinctive voices. But, though it has been made this volume’s show-pony, it is hard to see what the story’s purpose is, except to re-visit the notorious case.

            The most convincing “voice” is that of the murder victim, who thinks she is street-wise and knows the score about men, but who of course gets way out of her depth in the end.

            Maybe that’s the point.

            Maybe Oates wants to signal that tough girls can very easily end up as damsels in distress.

            If this is Oates’ intended theme, then it meshes well with the five stories that are grouped together as the volume’s second section. In all of them, there are young people who think they have a handle on the world, but who are less in control than they think they are among adults. Or there are adults who exploit the weakness of children and young people.

            I regard “I.D.” as the very best story in the collection (fittingly, after first appearing in the New Yorker, it was anthologised in one of the annual volumes of Best American Short Stories). It’s narrated in the third-person-limited style from the viewpoint of the thirteen-year-old Lisette, who is ogled at high-school by older boys because they think she looks “hot”. Lisette’s solo mother moves between being a blackjack dealer and a “cocktail waitress” in Atlantic City. (Atmospheric references to Atlantic City’s boardwalk seem sad in a special way, now that the recent storms have demolished most of that tawdry tourist attraction). Through Lisette’s na├»ve, almost stream-of-consciousness babble, it is clear that her mother really earns her money in other ways. Left on her own, the thirteen-year-old seems sassy and sure of herself. Confronted in the most brutal possible way with the reality of her mother’s life (no, I give no spoilers here), she becomes a little child retreating into denial and fantasy. It is the convincing voice that is the story’s real asset.

            In “Deceit” we enter into the world of domestic abuse through the viewpoint of a single mother, hauled into a school counsellor’s office to answer questions about the bruises on her 14-year-old daughter’s body. The first half of the story is terrifying. At first the interrogation of the mother by the steely counsellor (unsubtly called Weedle) has us entirely on the side of the mother, who clearly and honestly has no knowledge of the violence done to her daughter. But our perceptions change as we find out more about what sort of mother she is. In a way, the denouement of this one is the sickest and most unsettling thing in the collection, even if no physical violence is done.

            “Run Kiss Daddy” is again a story of broken families. A divorced and remarried man (more unsubtlety in the fact that he is called Reno) ruminates on how much he wants his new marriage to work, with a wife who has two small children from her own previous marriage. No violence happens but a piece of over-the-top symbolism lets us know how very badly any reconstituted family could go wrong.       

            “Hey, Dad” is the curt monologue of son confronting the biological father who once cast him off in the most brutal and final way. “The Good Samaritan”, again in the first person, is a strange, unsettling story which, like “Run Kiss Daddy”, is left hanging in the air. The young woman who narrates it impulsively returns to its owner a wallet she finds on a train. She ends up having an encounter with somebody who may, or may not, have been involved in the most extreme form of domestic violence – but it is never made clear whether the violence actually took place.

            In none of these stories is Oates’ tone sardonic or condescending. She is not saying that all marriages and families are a sham; but she is saying that things can go badly wrong with families and marriages. She is also very wise to the new crop of lies told by people who think they are free spirits and are not limited by traditional conventions in marriage and child-raising. Too often , free spiritedness is code for not giving a stuff for other people and certainly not giving a stuff for real child-rearing. See “I.D.”, “Deceit” and “Hey, Dad” above.

            Moving away from real or potential domestic violence, this volume puts together in its third section three stories of quiet desperation.

            “A Brutal Murder in a Public Place” is simply the detailed description of a small bird flapping helplessly about inside a large anonymous modern airport lounge, banging against the plate glass window, and the narrator’s sense of shock and surprise at this living thing that has found its way in there in the first place. This, however, serves as prologue to two stories of women trapped and unfulfilled in otherwise placid and affluent marriages. In effect, Oates is deploying the old “bird in a gilded cage” imagery.

            In “Roma”, a childless middle-aged American couple are holidaying in Rome. They have been married for 30-plus years and are now in their 50s. It is not redundant to note that they are childless, because the story is really about how unfulfilled they are and the emptiness of their lives which they try to fill up in various ways – he with voyeurism including erotic art and peeping at neighbours (Hitchcock’s Rear Window is specifically referenced) and she with shopping. There is no violence in the story, but there is an awful domestic blankness. The wasteland of affluence without purpose.

            “Spotted Hyenas – A Romance”, the longest single story in the collection, is really a variation on the same theme. It also shows both Oates’ strengths and her weaknesses as a writer. A middle-aged childless woman has a boring rich corporation-lawyer husband. She remembers and begins to fantasize about her thwarted student career as a biologist studying animal life. She comes once again into contact with an old colleague from her student days, who now studies hyenas. This is the cue for detailed images of ferocious and instinctive animal life in contrast with the woman’s tepid, bloodless existence. Once again, childlessness is a signal for emotional sterility and pointless sex, which contrasts with the wild, functional, reproductive copulation of the hyenas. The trouble is, Oates overplays these images and goes on too damned long, so that they become overwrought and obvious.

            And in the final section, after the metaphorical prison of loveless, childless marriage, we are in literal prisons.

            “San Quentin” is a mere sketch – a monologue by a barely-literate prisoner taking a biology course in a prison night school and trying hard to understand what sort of animal he himself is. “Anniversary” goes to the other side of the teacher’s desk in a prison school. The essential theme is the discomfort of a well-educated volunteer woman instructor who comes to a men’s prison to teach a writing course. The sense of lock-down, of guards permanently watching, and of the outsiders’ wariness regarding all prisoners – these are all conveyed well. But Oates, having set all this up excellently, can’t forebear a tricky ending to round it off and give “Anniversary” the “closure” of a more traditional short story, when might have been better open-ended.

            So what do we have here? A collection of short stories which, in its four sections, moves from historical violence; to the threat or reality of domestic violence and child abuse; to the domestic sterility of affluent, childless marriage; to prison. Now why do I not feel more depressed after reading it?

            Joyce Carol Oates (born 1938) has been on the American literary scene for so long now that it’s easy to mistake her for part of the landscape and move on. Since the early 1960s, she has published an astonishing 50 novels. Black Dahlia & White Rose is her 25th collection of short stories. These eleven stories were all originally published in magazines ranging from the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s to Ellery Queen and Playboy. Would it be fair to say that Joyce Carol Oates, who has won numerous literary awards and held many academic positions, represents what Middle America will read when it goes slightly highbrow?

            Possibly this is true, but it’s also demeaning to express it this way. The truth is that, despite some of their lapses, these are well-written stories which read well and have some point. The author is no fool. And I never feel depressed when I’m reading the work of somebody who knows her craft.

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